This is an annotated version of the article First Vision Accounts at lds.org. To display the annotation, click on the note numbers at the end of a paragraph (Note 1, Note 2, etc.). Click again to hide the note. The annotations are not part of the original article.
Joseph Smith recorded that God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to him in a grove of trees near his parents’ home in western New York State when he was about 14 years old. Concerned by his sins and unsure which spiritual path to follow, Joseph sought guidance by attending meetings, reading scripture, and praying. In answer, he received a heavenly manifestation. Joseph shared and documented the First Vision, as it came to be known, on multiple occasions; he wrote or assigned scribes to write four different accounts of the vision.
What is also noteworthy about these accounts is that Joseph Smith waited a long time before sharing this special event. The first published version dates back to 1842 (written in the winter of 1838/39), 22 years after the fact and some 12 years after the foundation of the Mormon church on April 6, 1830.
There are virtually no sources from the years between 1820 and 1842 that refer to the first vision. Two unpublished versions from 1832 and 1835 are discussed later in this essay, but these were only discovered in the church archives in the 1960s (Jessee 1969, but see also this version from 1853, which describes hearing Joseph Smith mentioning elements of the first vision as early as 1833).
The story of Joseph Smith’s first vision plays no role whatsoever in early Mormonism. When looking at the contemporary historical sources, it appears as though it never happened.
These documents may have been discussed repeatedly, but not regularly, in church publications. In the endnote to this paragraph, the authors of this article can barely cite 4 church publications about the existence of multiple first vision accounts between 1970 and 2012.
Compared to the hundreds of times the canonized version of the first vision was mentioned or discussed in church publications in that same time frame, saying the non-canonized accounts were discussed “sporadically” would be a less deceptive assessment than “regularly”.
More than 40 years after the publication of the 1832 and 1835 accounts, Mormon historian Steven Harper lamented that “efforts to publish and publicize the historical record of the vision have not been widely read. Relatively few people have learned of these vital historical documents and their contents” (Harper 2011).
The various accounts of the First Vision tell a consistent story, though naturally they differ in emphasis and detail. Historians expect that when an individual retells an experience in multiple settings to different audiences over many years, each account will emphasize various aspects of the experience and contain unique details. Indeed, differences similar to those in the First Vision accounts exist in the multiple scriptural accounts of Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus and the Apostles’ experience on the Mount of Transfiguration. Yet despite the differences, a basic consistency remains across all the accounts of the First Vision.
This is a faulty comparison. Joseph Smith’s case concerns one author/narrator who told his own story during his lifetime. The quoted Bible books were written by various authors, some 50 to 100 years after the events described, based on unknown composite sources.
Yet in spite of all this, these Bible stories are more consistent than the first vision stories. Time, place, action and actors are all highly consistent, as opposed to the various first vision accounts.
Some have mistakenly argued that any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication. To the contrary, the rich historical record enables us to learn more about this remarkable event than we could if it were less well documented.
This is a straw man argument. There is not a single source that maintains that “any variation in the retelling of the story is evidence of fabrication”.
Accounts of the First Vision
Each account of the First Vision by Joseph Smith and his contemporaries has its own history and context that influenced how the event was recalled, communicated, and recorded. These accounts are discussed below.
1832 Account. The earliest known account of the First Vision, the only account written in Joseph Smith’s own hand, is found in a short, unpublished autobiography Joseph Smith produced in the second half of 1832. In the account, Joseph Smith described his consciousness of his own sins and his frustration at being unable to find a church that matched the one he had read about in the New Testament and that would lead him to redemption. He emphasized Jesus Christ’s Atonement and the personal redemption it offered. He wrote that “the Lord” appeared and forgave him of his sins. As a result of the vision, Joseph experienced joy and love, though, as he noted, he could find no one who believed his account. Read the 1832 account here.
1835 Account. In the fall of 1835, Joseph Smith recounted his First Vision to Robert Matthews, a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio. The retelling, recorded in Joseph’s journal by his scribe Warren Parrish, emphasizes his attempt to discover which church was right, the opposition he felt as he prayed, and the appearance of one divine personage who was followed shortly by another. This account also notes the appearance of angels in the vision. Read the 1835 account here.
1838 Account. The narration of the First Vision best known to Latter-day Saints today is the 1838 account. First published in 1842 in the Times and Seasons, the Church’s newspaper in Nauvoo, Illinois, the account was part of a longer history dictated by Joseph Smith between periods of intense opposition. Whereas the 1832 account emphasizes the more personal story of Joseph Smith as a young man seeking forgiveness, the 1838 account focuses on the vision as the beginning of the “rise and progress of the Church.” Like the 1835 account, the central question of the narrative is which church is right. Read the 1838 account here.
1842 Account. Written in response to Chicago Democrat editor John Wentworth’s request for information about the Latter-day Saints, this account was printed in the Times and Seasons in 1842. (The “Wentworth letter,” as it is commonly known, is also the source for the Articles of Faith.) The account, intended for publication to an audience unfamiliar with Mormon beliefs, is concise and straightforward. As with earlier accounts, Joseph Smith noted the confusion he experienced and the appearance of two personages in answer to his prayer. The following year, Joseph Smith sent this account with minor modifications to a historian named Israel Daniel Rupp, who published it as a chapter in his book, He PasaEkklesia [The Whole Church]: An Original History of the Religious Denominations at Present Existing in the United States. Read the 1842 account here.
Second hand Accounts. Besides these accounts from Joseph Smith himself, five accounts were written by contemporaries who heard Joseph Smith speak about the vision. Read these accounts here.
Arguments Regarding the Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
The variety and number of accounts of the First Vision have led some critics to question whether Joseph Smith’s descriptions match the reality of his experience. Two arguments are frequently made against his credibility: the first questions Joseph Smith’s memory of the events; the second questions whether he embellished elements of the story over time.
These are not the only arguments made by “some critics” but the authors of this essay do not indicate why they have chosen to discuss only these two. By ignoring all the other arguments, the authors present an incomplete picture of the issues surrounding the first vision, such as:
1. The lack of supporting evidence and the unfamiliarity of Joseph Smith’s contemporaries with the first vision (see note 1).
2. Demonstrable historical errors in the various accounts (see note 6).
3. Contradictions between the accounts, such as the occurrence of dark forces (not in the 1832 version, included in a few later versions, but explicitly excluded in an 1843 version).
4. The consistency of, and documentary support for alternative explanations for the development of the first vision story, such as the historical context or Joseph Smith’s evolving ideas about the nature of God (see note 9).
Memory. One argument regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision alleges that historical evidence does not support Joseph Smith’s description of religious revival in Palmyra, New York, and its vicinity in 1820. Some argue that this undermines both Joseph’s claim of unusual religious fervour and the account of the vision itself.
Documentary evidence, however, supports Joseph Smith’s statements regarding the revivals. The region where he lived became famous for its religious fervour and was unquestionably one of the hotbeds of religious revivals. Historians refer to the region as “the burned-over district” because preachers wore out the land holding camp revivals and seeking converts during the early 1800s. In June 1818, for example, a Methodist camp meeting took place in Palmyra, and the following summer, Methodists assembled again at Vienna (now Phelps), New York, 15 miles from the Smith family farm.
The year 1818 is not 1820 and Vienna is not Palmyra. This is akin to claiming that an airplane crash in the Bronx in 1999 is evidence for the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan in 2001. The sources mentioned, then, do not support Joseph Smith’s statements regarding the revivals.
The correct chronology can be determined with reasonable certainty on the basis of town archives, tax records and church registers from that time (Walters & Marquardt 1994, pp. 1-41). These indicate that the Smith family moved from Palmyra to the adjacent Manchester in 1822.
Joseph Smith referred to this move when wrote in the canonized1838 account: “Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion” (Pearl of Great Price 2013, p. 47). This dates the Palmyra revival at 1824, although his assessment that “I was at this time in my fifteenth year” is incorrect (he was 18 at the time).
The 1824 rather than the 1820 date for the revivals is supported by the membership rolls of the various denominations in and around Palmyra. In 1820, the membership numbers for most of these churches were stable but in 1824 and 1825 they increased by the dozens (Marquardt & Walters 1994, pp. 17-18).
It is not really remarkable for Joseph Smith to incorrectly remember his age during the religious revivals in Palmyra. Such mistakes are human (especially if one waits for 20 years before talking or writing about it) and there are plenty of clues which allow an accurate dating.
However, it is a big problem for the official Mormon historical record because it puts the first vision after the appearance of the angel Moroni in 1823, which leads to many inconsistencies in the canonized account of 1838.
The journals of an itinerant Methodist preacher document much religious excitement in Joseph’s geographic area in 1819 and 1820. They report that Reverend George Lane, a revivalist Methodist minister, was in that region in both years, speaking “on Gods method in bringing about Reformations.” This historical evidence is consistent with Joseph’s description. He said that the unusual religious excitement in his district or region “commenced with the Methodists.” Indeed, Joseph stated that he became “somewhat partial” to Methodism.
This 7-word journal quote only indicates that George Lane was in the area (a fact which nobody disputes) and what he preached about (a fact that says nothing about the degree of religious excitement in the region). If there is no other, more relevant information in these journals (note the plural), their use to support an 1820 Palmyra revival is spurious.
The Methodist membership rolls tell a different story. They reflect a loss of 26 members in 1819, 6 in 1820 and 49 in 1821 – not much of a revival (Marquardt & Walters 1994, p. 17; but see Quinn 2006 for a critical analysis of these numbers).
Moreover, in his 1838 account Joseph Smith did not say “that the unusual religious excitement in his district or region commenced with the Methodists”, as the authors of this essay make it appear but “some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists”.
Embellishment. The second argument frequently made regarding the accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is that he embellished his story over time. This argument focuses on two details: the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith stated that he saw.
This is another straw man argument which overly simplifies the actual critical argument. That argument not only focuses on the number and identity of the heavenly beings Joseph Smith saw (apparently considered “details” by the authors of this essay) but also on other aspects of the story that become “more detailed and fantastic over time” (see this introduction to the first vision for more examples).
Joseph’s First Vision accounts describe the heavenly beings with greater detail over time. The 1832 account says, “The Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.” His 1838 account states, “I saw two Personages,” one of whom introduced the other as “My Beloved Son.” As a result, critics have argued that Joseph Smith started out reporting to have seen one being—“the Lord”—and ended up claiming to have seen both the Father and the Son.
There are other, more consistent ways of seeing the evidence.
There are indeed more consistent ways of seeing the evidence, for instance the changing historical context in which Joseph Smith told the story of the first vision. This approach fits well with Joseph Smith’s personal development as the leader of his fast-growing movement.
Moreover, this approach also matches the way in which scientists nowadays believe autobiographical memories originate, i.e. under the influence of current themes in someone’s life, based on conceptual memories (Conway 2005).
Another way to see the evidence was presented by former CES-director Grant Palmer on November 13, 2013. In this lecture (click here to view on YouTube) Palmer explains that Joseph Smith’s concept of God was Trinitarian at first (see also this article about the Trinity in the Book of Mormon). In the period between 1835 and 1839 this evolved into two personages. The various versions of the first vision fit this development to a tee.
In the last years of his life, Joseph Smith believed there are many gods but this idea was not worked into another first vision account. It can be found in the Book of Abraham and the Mormon temple rituals.
These two approaches are consistent because they coherently explain a myriad of known historical facts and theological developments.
A basic harmony in the narrative across time must be acknowledged at the outset: three of the four accounts clearly state that two personages appeared to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. The outlier is Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, which can be read to refer to one or two personages. If read to refer to one heavenly being, it would likely be to the personage who forgave his sins. According to later accounts, the first divine personage told Joseph Smith to “hear” the second, Jesus Christ, who then delivered the main message, which included the message of forgiveness. Joseph Smith’s 1832 account, then, may have concentrated on Jesus Christ, the bearer of forgiveness.
Another way of reading the 1832 account is that Joseph Smith referred to two beings, both of whom he called “Lord.” The embellishment argument hinges on the assumption that the 1832 account describes the appearance of only one divine being. But the 1832 account does not say that only one being appeared. Note that the two references to “Lord” are separated in time: first “the Lord” opens the heavens; then Joseph Smith sees “the Lord.” This reading of the account is consistent with Joseph’s 1835 account, which has one personage appearing first, followed by another soon afterwards. The 1832 account, then, can reasonably be read to mean that Joseph Smith saw one being who then revealed another and that he referred to both of them as “the Lord”: “the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord.”
It is proposed here that the two references to “the Lord” in the 1832 version are separated in time and could refer, therefore, to two different persons, and that this matches the 1835 account in which two persons appear after each other. However, in the 1838 account the two persons appear simultaneously. This means that the proposed interpretation of the 1832 account is based on a contradiction between the 1835 and 1838 accounts. Compared to the two alternative explanations proposed in note 9, this far-fetched “two Lords” interpretation is nothing short of absurd.
Joseph’s increasingly specific descriptions can thus be compellingly read as evidence of increasing insight, accumulating over time, based on experience. In part, the differences between the 1832 account and the later accounts may have something to do with the differences between the written and the spoken word. The 1832 account represents the first time Joseph Smith attempted to write down his history. That same year, he wrote a friend that he felt imprisoned by “paper pen and Ink and a crooked broken scattered and imperfect Language.” He called the written word a “little narrow prison.” The expansiveness of the later accounts is more easily understood and even expected when we recognize that they were likely dictated accounts—an, easy, comfortable medium for Joseph Smith and one that allowed the words to flow more easily.
It is difficult to determine the plausibility of this explanation because the authors offer no sources on which their theory is based. At the same time, though, this explanation raises the question why Joseph Smith wrote the 1832 account himself in the first place. At that point he had several years of experience working with scribes. If he found writing so hard, why choose that medium to share with the world, for the first time ever, his important vision?
Joseph Smith testified repeatedly that he experienced a remarkable vision of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ. Neither the truth of the First Vision nor the arguments against it can be proven by historical research alone. Knowing the truth of Joseph Smith’s testimony requires each earnest seeker of truth to study the record and then exercise sufficient faith in Christ to ask God in sincere, humble prayer whether the record is true.
If this were true, why don’t the Mormon missionaries ask potential converts to “study the record”? Why aren’t these accounts part of the regular curriculum of the Mormon church? Why do so few Mormons even know these different accounts even exist?
If the seeker asks with the real intent to act upon the answer revealed by the Holy Ghost, the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s vision will be manifest. In this way, every person can know that Joseph Smith spoke honestly when he declared, “I had seen a vision, I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”